Monday, August 11, 2008

Mondavi legacy lives on in Napa Valley

[Left: The Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts was established at UC Davis in 2002. (Jeremy Sykes)]

Mondavi legacy lives on in Napa Valley

Edward Guthmann, Chronicle Staff Writer

August 7, 2008

From her office window, Margrit Biever Mondavi sees the vineyards that her husband built. She sees the lawn where Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman performed on summer evenings, and she sees the Spanish Colonial archway that appears on the label of each bottle from the Robert Mondavi Winery.

Her husband, Robert Mondavi, was Napa Valley's most successful and influential vintner. Born in Minnesota to Italian immigrants, he not only brought international standards to his winery but also, through relentless salesmanship, established Napa Valley as one of the world's foremost wine regions.

Before Robert Mondavi, wine wasn't a staple in most American homes, and Napa Valley was more famous for its mental hospital than its vineyards. Before Robert Mondavi, a British journalist wickedly observed in the Guardian of London, "Americans hardly knew their country produced wine, and seemed content to live on tuna melt and meat loaf washed down by Coke."

It's been three months since Robert died and Margrit, his wife of 28 years and an important component in the winery's success, is sitting in his office and reminiscing about her husband's dedication and single-mindedness.

Forty-five years ago, Margrit says, "The whole valley was for sale for $1,000 an acre. Nobody believed in Napa Valley. And I think it was very much Robert Mondavi who turned it around."

He was a handsome blade, with a strong jaw and Roman nose, and for all of his life looked like a classic Western movie star - a cinematic brother to Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea or John Wayne. "You know, he looked good till his last day," Margrit says. "He had no wrinkles. Can you imagine? He was 95 and had no wrinkles! I think he had a subcutaneous layer of olive oil."

Robert's last four years were marked by mobility problems and mental decline. In the last six months, Margrit says, "He had a slow dementia, which made it very hard on me, because I didn't know where he was. He didn't communicate much any more."

Margrit, 82, is dressed in white silk pants and a knee-length cardigan. A native of Switzerland, she's small and elegant and still speaks with a pronounced accent after 60 years of life in the United States. Sitting on a leather love seat in Robert's surprisingly small office, next to several shelves of Mondavi family photos, she's wistful, proud and happy to talk about her husband.

Since his death, says Margrit, she's had support from friends and family - two daughters from her first marriage live nearby - but the evenings are lonely. "We had a wonderful life together," she says. "We never argued."

[Right: Robert Mondavi. (Gary Fong / The Chronicle)]

A good match

It's clear that Robert and Margrit were well-matched: Both were ambitious and hardworking, both loved wine and food culture, both adored the contacts and lifestyle that Robert's spectacular success afforded them.

When they met in the 1960s, after Margrit was hired as a tour guide at the winery, both were married with three children apiece: Robert to his childhood sweetheart Marjorie Declusin, Margrit to former U.S. Army officer Philip Biever, whom she had met and married in Switzerland when she was 20.

In her dishy 2007 book "The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty" (Gotham Books), author Julia Flynn Siler traces the evolution of the relationship and the disruption it caused.

Robert's three children were fiercely opposed to his relationship with Margrit, and winery personnel resented her rapid ascent within the company. They were envious when she started the Summer Music Festival in 1969, turned the Vineyard Room into an art gallery and introduced a program of cooking classes. Marjorie, who married Robert in 1937, was viewed as the wronged woman; when her drinking got out of control, people blamed Robert's philandering.

"We had a little bit of a soap opera," Margrit admits. "(But) we were very attracted to each other. We always knew we were going to end up together ... once we dissolved our past lives."

Margrit wasn't like anyone else in Napa Valley. Reared in Ticino, a Swiss canton on the Italian border, she had artistic appreciation in her blood: Her father played piano, kept a wine cellar and practiced homeopathic medicine. Her mother was a splendid cook and music lover who, when Margrit was 12, took her on a four-hour bus ride to Verona just to hear "Aida." With her background and flair, Siler writes, Margrit "complemented and enabled Robert Mondavi's dream" in ways that his first wife hadn't.

The early hostility from Robert's children was hurtful, Margrit says, "but Bob was always so supportive of me. He always said, 'I'll take care of you, don't worry.' " The couple married in 1980, and eventually she built strong bonds with Robert's daughter Marcia and son Timothy. "It's very good now," she says. "I didn't expect it."

Expanding horizons

In their last years together, Margrit and Robert became Napa Valley's premier philanthropists, helping to establish Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & The Arts in Napa. In 2001, they donated $25 million to establish the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at UC Davis - it opens in October - and gave $10 million to the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2002 and includes the 1,800-seat Jackson Hall and the 250-seat Studio Theatre.

Today, Margrit is the only Mondavi still working at the Robert Mondavi headquarters and tasting room on Highway 29 in Oakville. In November 2004, the company was bought by Constellation Brands Inc., the world's biggest wine conglomerate, for $1.6 billion. Both Robert and Margrit were retained as ambassadors; Margrit still oversees cultural activities as vice president of cultural affairs.

On a stroll through the winery, Margrit points out the Vineyard Room, where she presented artists Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud; the fanciful Beniamino Bufano sculptures she collected; and the lawn where Vince Guaraldi, Cal Tjader and countless jazz artists performed over the years. None of it would have happened, she says, if her late husband hadn't backed her, if he hadn't by nature been a gambler and an optimist.

"I'd say, 'Is it all right, Bob? Should I try this?'

"And he'd say, 'Look, if it's good, let's not talk about it. Do it!' "

[Left: Margrit Biever Mondavi, widow of vintner Robert Mondavi, is the only member of the family working at the Robert Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley, where she serves as vice president of cultural affairs. She helped establish art shows and concerts at the winery. (Photo by Craig Lee / The Chronicle)]

Italian Passions: Concert part of the Music in the Vineyards series. 7:30 p.m. Aug. 15. Robert Mondavi Winery, Highway 29, Oakville. Go to or

For information about forthcoming events at Copia and the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at the University of California at Davis, go to and

E-mail Edward Guthmann at


Article Link from the San Francisco Chronicle (
Mondavi legacy lives on in Napa Valley

Robert Mondavi's parents were from the Marche region, while Margrit Mondavi was originally from the Ticino canton.

The following are books which tie into the subjects of the Napa County wine industry, and of the families which founded them:

'Napa: The Story of an American Eden' (James Conaway; 2002)

'Harvests of Joy: How the Good Life Became Great Business' (Robert Mondavi; 1999)

'Wine Heritage: The Story of Italian-American Vintners' (Dick Rosano; 2000)

No comments: